Sunday, November 18, 2007

it says more about the author than the music

A frequent response to negative criticism, but one I don't really understand.

"They played a blues in F. Then a variation on rhythm changes clever enough to prove there's still life in that old method." "XYZ is possessed of a fine technique, but thanks to an unforced modesty, it never eclipses melody and feeling." Do these sentences tell us more about the player or the listener?

I can't tell you much about music, but I can tell you about myself. In fact, I think music is fairly rarely talked about - see any feature-length article on a musician in, say, the NY Times. If music is not fully contained in either its technique, its context, its consumers or producers, is it possible to talk about it, or only around it? Obviously, if music's artistic space could be fully duplicated (in words, painting, film, etc.), it wouldn't have much reason to exist.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Trio Grande w/ Matthew Bourne - 26/10/2007@Beursschouwburg, Bruxelles

Laurent Dehors - b cl, contrabass cl, two more straight clarinets I don't know the keys of, ts, ss, hca, jew's harp, bagpipes
Matthew Bourne - p (website)
Michel Massot - tba, tb, euphonium
Michel Debrulle - d

Bagpipes over the slow funk of an African-tinged vamp in 7. Michel Massot and Matthew Bourne spastically dancing opposite each other during the first encore. Bourne letting his improvising be guided by a plastic water bottle cap springing across the piano's strings. A cartoonish take on dixieland abruptly catapulted into mid-20th century classical music, expressed through a series of short waltzes. Possibly the funniest impromptu explanation of how clarinets work ever given.

Those are a few of the things that made this yet another great Trio Grande (plus guest Bourne) gig. The pianist fit surprisingly well into the group's aesthetic, moving easily from doubling melodic lines to pounding out scattered free playing to lush romanticism. Whether it was his influence, or the general direction the band's music is taking, there was a loose, drifting feel to much of the repertoire, whereas I tend to think of Trio Grande as both more barn-storming and more melodic. While the group seems to focus more on melody and timbre (eg. Massot's nuanced use of multiphonics), the song structures they use - impressive without really calling attention to themselves because they sound so organic - sort of replace harmony's forward drive. In any case, the upcoming quartet CD should be a worthy heir to the fabulous Signé.

That I am elated by these kinds of concerts and am left somewhat indifferent to Mikkel Ploug or even Drew Gress has me slightly worried. Am I able to appreciate what Nate Chinen calls "the deeper subtleties of harmony and form," or am I merely attracted to "a lot of surface dazzle," like some sort of musical magpie? I'd like to get really excited by that subtle stuff, too...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Bad Plus - 14/10/2007@N9, Eeklo

Ethan Iverson - p (blog)
Reid Anderson - b
David King - d

[Yes, this post is almost a month overdue. Consider it a prelude to The Bad Plus's return to Belgium on the 15th. I'll be seeing Brad Mehldau that day, but you should go if you can.]

I bought a PlayStation 2 a while ago, just to play Guitar Hero. Passing in front of a second-hand video-game shop, I popped in on the off chance they might have something of interest. They didn't, but there was a book section in the back. So, instead of Fifa 2007, I walked out with Sartre, Proust and Boris Vian. The Bad Plus is a bit like that: first you hear about the Nirvana, Black Sabbath and Vangelis covers, then you find out that that's not really what they're about, at least not in a superficial way.

Perhaps it wasn't obvious with their first couple albums, but having "Street Woman" on Give, then a series of blog posts and, on a personal level, my very recent discovery of The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, have made evident how indebted TBP is to the Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden/Keith Jarrett American Quartet axis.

Given that (and taking other influences into consideration), it's not too surprising for one section of Dave King's new "My Friend Medatron" to totally draw up a new intersection of pop's teleological movement, the wheel-within-a-wheel rhythms of funk and the disassembling impulse of free jazz, like Julius Hemphill's "Dogon AD" or the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Le Thème de Yoyo" before it. And it is as un-sellout as its predecessors (we can add On The Corner to the list), a point emphatically made as "Heart of Glass" (my favourite TBP cover) was torn to shreds: they aren't pandering. And somehow, this all goes well with the absurd tangents TBP like to go on, whether spoken ("We're big fans of disco... Especially roller-disco" prefaced the Blondie tune) or musical (the juxtaposition of two completely different uses of handclaps in "1980 World Champion").

While none of the new tunes jumped out and grabbed me quite like "Physical Cities" did a year ago, there were a number of really good ones. "People Like You" was a classic Reid Anderson ballad: a tender melody (suggesting that the title's "like" was a verb, not a comparison) and a steady crescendo from a spare beginning to a more emphatic climax, without losing a certain sense of drift, in the vein of "Prehensile Dream," the concert-opening oldie-but-goodie. Ethan's "Old Money" featured Reid in a different mode, as his solo started with vigorously syncopated arpeggios, wriggled into a funky single line and suddenly slowed for a poignant close.

Finally, as it was the eve of Reid's birthday, we (the audience) sang for him, to a very slow drum accompaniment that was kind of destabilising: I, for one, was never too sure when, or where, the next beat was going to land. A mini-taste of what it's like playing with Dave King, I guess.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts - 05/11/2007@De Werf, Brugge

Terell Stafford - tp, flh
Gary Versace - p, acc
Dennis Irwin - b, cl
Matt Wilson - d (myspace | website)

A few days ago, Jeff Albert wrote a quasi-love letter to Matt Wilson. After seeing Arts & Crafts last night, I feel like doing the same. Here's what it might look like:

Dear Matt,

I love you. I know that might sound a little forward - after all, you don't even know me - but let me explain.

Let's face it: in 2007, straight-ahead jazz be boring. It is too often, if anything, the sound of constraint, or of missed opportunities. But when you guys started the concert with Monk's "We See," all I could think was how it was bursting with life! With happiness! It was real. It swung in a natural yet unsystematic way. Like kids in a playground, there was a sense of freedom to it. And then your "Free Range Chicken" reminded me of Jimmy Giuffre's cowboy songs on The Western Suite.

Terell was bouncy and impassioned, Gary gave things a soulful bent. Dennis even played some musette-style clarinet on a fun couple of tunes. And you... Well, just how is it that you can make a drum solo consisting mostly of rolling a drumstick on the snare drum sound so good, in this context?

You talked to us about playing with Dewey Redman for a dozen years and dedicated the last song of the second set, "In Touch With Dewey," to him. You launched it by clanging away irrevently on a small gong laid on the floor tom. That spirit of irreverent celebration (of Dewey, of classic jazz feels) infused the whole set and made everyone in the room happy. It made the guys on the bandstand happy (it even made the people at the bar happy: the Tongerlo dubbel that had cost me 2.50 before the concert cost me 50 cents less at intermission). And what makes you happy, makes me happy, Matt.

By the way, why do you pronounce Gary's last name "verse ace", rather than "versacci," like the fashion designer? Maybe that's something we could talk about by the fireplace, on a long winter's evening.



P.S. I loved the glasses, too.
Then again, maybe I should wait until our second date to let my feelings out. I wouldn't want to scare him off.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mikkel Ploug Group ft. Mark Turner - 07/10/2007@L'Archiduc, Bruxelles

Mark Turner - ts
Mikkel Ploug - g (myspace)
Jeppe Skovbakke - b
Sean Carpio - d
Joachim Badenhorst - ts

On what could very well have been the last sunny and warm days of the year, it felt unnatural, perhaps even heretical in these suddenly eco-concious times, to sit inside the gloomy and electrically-lit Archiduc. One constant pleasure of this cramped and impractical room remains, whatever the season: the passing of the trendy neighbourhood's local fauna. There are the good-looking, expensively-dressed women, the eccentrically hip, those who wander in and look appalled (when it's free jazz), who look put off (when it's non-free jazz) and those who look lost (in any circumstance). In this particular instance, there was also the woman sitting next to me. At one point, I looked downwards for a while, at nothing in particular. She had slipped off her sandals, her bare foot dangled in the air. She must have gotten the impression I was staring at it: she freaked and hurriedly put her sandals back on. Maybe she was just self-concious about them.

This to-and-fro was more entertaining than the concert itself. As when I last saw Mark Turner, the audience was musician-heavy (as it was, though in a lesser proportion, for Drew Gress). I am beginning to seriously distrust this measure as a barometer of enjoyment, but maybe I just have a problem with New York-based Scandanavian guitarists.

Sean Carpio and Jeppe Skovbakke kept up a dynamic beat, hearing Turner close up was interesting and when Joachim sat in towards the end, the two-tenor combination gave the music a sensuous heft. For me, though, the show suffered from boring writing: it took four pieces before we got to hear something that sounded like a song rather than like a series of riff transpositions. Mikkel Ploug's guitar sound - bright, dry, unadorned - isn't one I'm really attracted too, either. Listening to the tracks on his MySpace page, I kind of like them (even though the trio version of "I'll Be Seeing You" makes me wonder if it's meant as a joke), so I'm not sure if the problem was a lack of familiarity, a sub-par performance or music that sounds better at home.

pod #14

The new issue of Point of Departure is out, with its usual payload of interesting columns. Travellin' Light gives Taylor Ho Bynum another chance to express his well-known and much-appreciated belgophilia (he once boasted of owning "one of the best Belgian jazz CD collections in New York." One of? Who's the competition?):

What are your three favorite venues?

There are a couple of spots I love in Belgium, the deWerf Theater in Brugge, and the deSingel Theater in Antwerp (they let me play on the roof!). I also always enjoy playing outdoors, especially in some of those beautiful European amphitheaters. But my favorite spot is my home away from home, New Haven’s wonderful Firehouse 12.

Taylor will be at deSingel next year, a gig I am very much looking forward to, as I have missed his last few performances here.

In the What's New? roundtable, Jason Hao Kwang gives a very interesting account of how he became concious of his own cultural identity:
I began to understand and therefore, imagine my identity, while touring South Korea with vocalist/choreographer Sin Cha Hong in 1992. This was my first trip to Asia. The experience was startling, both radically familiar and foreign. Though I am of Chinese decent, simply seeing, for the first time, streets bustling with heads of black hair was an inexplicable déjà vu. I remember witnessing myself in the dance mirrors of the Samul Nori studios, rehearsing with Korean musicians and dancers. The body language, smiles and laughter all seemed familiar. Being American-born Chinese, this was the first time an environment appeared to reflect at least some aspect of my being. At the same time, very few people in the project spoke much English. Also, I couldn’t read Korean. Paradoxically, I could not participate socially in all that looked so familiar. The inability to communicate is perhaps the ultimate foreign experience. Music was our only language.

I returned to the States with a new understanding of how much I had in common with my parents, who came from China in the 1940s. I sound like my father when I laugh or sneeze! Looking back, I also recognized how I responded to various life events emotionally, like one or both my parents. It is this mass of “micro-learning” ingrained into my personality, not Asian scholarship, that defines my cultural self. These realizations generated insights about the shape, sound and phrase of my violin improvisations and compositions. In my sound was evidence of who I am.

What defines “non-Western” is complex and nuanced, far beyond simple markers of musicology, like the pentatonic scale.

gimme translation

It Is Not Mean... responds to and elaborates upon a comment I had left on his blog (also see Jeremy Stuart's comment on De Saussure):

Because "I don't speak no languages" there is very little I can say to the art and science of translation. The mechanist in me doesn't understand why there isn't simply a "right" translation and an everything-else-is-wrong translation. How is it that there is so much "wiggle room" going from one language to another?

I don't think one has to speak several languages to understand how translation works. Simply watch a Chinese or Japanese film with subtitles, and then the same film dubbed into the language of your choice. It's kind of like watching the same play with two different sets of actors, only a lot worse. Not only are the words not the same, but the myriad tiny-yet-essential inflections (accent, volume, timing, etc.), the actors' personal styles and their cultural backgrounds are, literally, erased. There is nothing to be gained, artistically speaking.*

SJZ also wonders, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, if poetry would be easier to translate, "because they usually have less words." To me, that is precisely what makes translating poetry impossible. In film, the actor's performance has to be re-created. How can you re-create a poem? What do you do with rhyme and meter? Well, I don't know much about poetry, so let's take song lyrics.

At the moment, I'm working my way through six CDs' worth of Congolese music, some of which include translations in the liner notes. The music is generally great, but the lyrics always seem stupid on paper. Generally speaking, even lyrics that haven't been translated generally look stupid, written down (e.g. any number of instances of Kelefa Sanneh quoting rap lyrics in the New York Times).

In the case of the Congolese music, I wish I could speak lingala, not only to be able to understand the lyrics as they are sung, but also because I would have greater insight into the culture and thought system they come from. I always get the impression that the deeper meanings of seemingly simple lyrics escape me, much in the same way many of the culturally-embedded references rappers do. So, one is not just translating words and their own characteristics (sound, rhythm, syntax, etc.), but also a whole cultural world.

Turning to jazz, SJZ asks: "Do methodologies in music also lose their snap?" I have been listening a lot to Josh Sinton's very good album altogether...all at once. Josh wrote an excellent essay on Steve Lacy's music for Darcy's blog, in which he made some comments relevant to SJZ's question:
When musicians talk about what they learned from music of the recent past, they talk about abstract concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘finding your personal voice.’ When they talk about music of the more distant past (pre-’65), they talk more often about concrete things like songs and harmonic approaches. I don’t have a beef with any of this, I just thought it might be interesting to turn this status quo on its head. Why not talk about concrete contributions of the recent past? That is, why not use the songs and improvising strategies of this ‘era?’ You don’t need Julius Hemphill to play “Dogon A.D.” to make it a great song, it IS a great song. The same can be said for the music of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, John Carter, Marion Brown, Jimmy Giuffre, Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, etc. While I admit some compositions may be knottier, thornier, or more ephemeral, that doesn’t disqualify them from being performable. Just because their strategies differ radically from improvising strategies on “All the Things You Are” doesn’t make them useless.
* The exception that proves the rule is the guy who dubs Columbo into French. He does a better Columbo than Peter Falk, and is probably largely responsible for the series' enduring popularity in France.

Tied + Tickled - 05/10/2007@Ancienne Belgique, Bruxelles

Any band with two girls (cellist/xylophonist and keyboardist, plus some guy on drums) has my immediate sympathy, but, in this case, that dissipated very quickly. The unannounced opener, which remained anonymous throughout a brief set that seemed too long anyway, was undoubtedly among the worst concerts I've attended. Perhaps the worst.

They played simplistic, repetitive, my-first-chord-progression motifs devoid of any creative effort. I could be accused of taking them altogether seriously, but I think it's the other way around: they drew such disproportionate self-satisfaction from the faintest sign of creativity or humour (playing "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" on kazoo, a burst of noise at the end of one song, the shaking of a banana-shaped shaker) that my loathing seemed justified.

If this was a terrible-opener-makes-headliner-look-good gambit, it totally back-fired. After a few songs of Tied + Tickled's electronica equivalent of bar-room rock, I left, fed up. I had come to this concert because of distant memories of a prior album, Observing Systems. I haven't yet re-listened to refresh my memory, but I can't imagine it sounded like what I heard here. As I went down the stairs leading outside, a woman ahead of me confirmed my suspicions when she complained to her partner: "That was so crap, compared to they used to do."